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Materialities of Software: Logistics, Labour, Infrastructure

By and large the digital humanities has been notable for its adherence to traditional research objects and rehashing of old methods. There is a concept-free zeal about the capacity for digital methods to verify some kind of hitherto unobtainable empirical truth. Historical literary texts are digitized to revise assumed economic patterns and social forces. Geographers scan topographic maps to produce information layers and digital elevations that reveal new frontiers for research. Google earth is traversed to uncover obscure archaeological curiosities in a dirt free manner. Even cutting edge research in the field of digital media cultures tends to transpose established humanities and social science methods to conduct ethnographies of Facebook, complex visualisations of networks and content analyses of the Twittersphere.

Broadly speaking, there seems to be a studious avoidance of inventing digital research methods outside disciplinary comfort zones. Nor is there any substantive academic engagement with the politics of data as it intersects with labour and life. Those studies involved in research on virtual work tend to reduce the experience and condition of labour to people working in the cultural and media industries, rather than identify how diverse sectors of the economy and society are affected – often in conflictual yet mutually constitutive ways – by the expansion of information economies and its supporting technologies.

This paper sketches out some of the digital methods related to research on global logistics that Brett Neilson, Katie Hepworth, myself and colleagues in computer science and design have been recently undertaking in the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney. The primary task of the global logistics industry is to manage the movement of people and things in the interests of communication, transport and economic efficiencies. The software applications special to logistics visualise and organise these mobilities, producing knowledge about the world in transit.

Digital Humanities and the Absence of Critique
The emergent field of digital humanities has sought to develop digital tools such as Geographical Information Systems (GIS), simulation, data-mining and network analysis to assist the humanities and social sciences in an attempt to formulate new research questions and techniques of analysis. More often these tools take the form of software applications able to ‘capture, manage and process’ large data sets, or what computer scientists and industry refer to as ‘big data’.1 This may include transactional data such as web searches and mobile phone records, along with digital books, newspapers, statistics, photographs, music, interviews and their supporting information architecture of tags, traces, comments.

In the process of drawing connections within or across data sets, old or existing research objects are remodelled in new ways. Unsurprisingly, there is also a strong business interest in devising new techniques for extracting economic value using tools that produce meaning from the process of data recombination and governance. As a report from The Economist put it in 2010, the proliferation of data ‘makes it possible to do many things that previously could not be done: spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on. Managed well, the data can be used to unlock new sources of economic value, provide fresh insights into science and hold governments to account’.2 That The Economist hitches a neoliberal democratic ethos or agenda to the market potential of data management should come as no surprise. While not especially novel or insightful, two problems The Economist foresees with the rise of big data include data storage availability and privacy and security issues. There may be scope for digital humanities to contribute to these debates in ways that address, for example, cultural and social dimensions wrought by the accumulation of big data.

For the digital humanities, the problems presented by digitalisation and, to a lesser extent, big data are quite different. One of the challenges facing digital humanities is the tendency for disciplines to refrain or withdraw from interdisciplinary engagement and reflexive critique. In doing so, new research questions are posed in terms of how to tackle larger scale data sets rather than address a material world unscored by complex problems. Alan Liu signals a critique of digital humanities in even more blunt terms: ‘the digital humanities are not ready to take up their full responsibility because the field does not yet possess an adequate critical awareness of the larger social, economic, and cultural issues at stake’.3 It’s almost as though nothing happened after New Criticism in literary theory and positivism in the social sciences.

In social science and humanities disciplines undertaking transnational and transcultural research using digital methods of one kind or another, there is a tendency for analyses drawing on large scale data sets to formulate a universal system of questions and to ensure maximum consistency in generating usable data. Such approaches, though hardly unique to computationally aided research, reproduce some of the central assumptions of area studies. Namely, that the study of geocultural difference is predicated on equivalent systems of measure that demonstrate difference in terms of self-contained areas or territories and civilizational continuities often conforming to the borders of the nation-state. Yet it is a mistake to suppose that cultural variation is distinguished in terms of national cultures, at least in any exclusive sense. In the case of transnational research on logistics industries (and, more broadly, any research project taking a global perspective), digital methods of comparative research need to be alert to the asymmetrical composition of data sets on transport and communication industries and labour performance, which upsets any desire for equivalent units consistent across time and space that might provide the basis for comparison.

To simply import existing methods (surveys, interviews, questionnaires, focus groups) from the humanities and social sciences and then use digital technology as a technique of enhancement is not really sufficient for the invention of new methods situated within computational architectures (media form). Methods developed from within media of communication – including graphic design and digital visualisation – can assist in understanding, for example, how software architectures operate as key technologies for governing labour within logistical industries. This does not mean producing bar graphs and pie charts using routine applications such as Excel or MS Word, nor does it involve undertaking geospatial mapping using Google Earth in order to represent the territorial distribution or location of data sets. Likewise, software used in quantitative research such as SPSS that codes questionnaire data for statistical analysis does little to inform research interested in the ways software itself at once shapes and emerges out of material conditions.

Data, Method, Labour
Our work around digital methods builds upon international research we have been conducting on transit labour in Shanghai, Kolkata and Sydney in collaboration with researchers based in the countries of those cities and Europe. After an initial interest in labour in the cultural industries, we quickly realised how labour mobilities that condition the possibility of cultural labour cannot be reduced to the cultural sector alone. Indeed, we found that logistics is key to forms of ‘differential inclusion’ – such as Special Economic Zones (SEZs), land acquisition policies, residential permits, software protocols and manufacturing standards along with ethnic and social borders – that govern labour and supply chains in the informational economies.4

The political challenge for research on logistics is to devise techniques and strategies that operate outside the territory of control exerted by logistics technologies and their software algorithms that shape how practices of knowledge production are organized and how labour is governed. The study of how databases, supply chain software, GPS, Voice Picking and RFID technologies affect work in the logistics industries contributes to a politicised conception of humanities and social research.5 Furthermore, the incorporation of digital methods into critical research on logistics can facilitate and inform the politics of data, which I would suggest is also a politics of labour and life, borders and movement, knowledge production and infrastructural implementation.

Software studies, as it has emerged from the study of network cultures and critical studies of digital media, also requires some mention. Though much more attuned to the work of critique and an often high technical knowledge of digital media, there is a tendency in software studies to focus on open source software and investigate questions of materiality in terms of design and ‘cultural analytics’, protocological control, media ecologies, memory and storage, and media archaeology.6 What sort of interventions can be made within the emergent field of software studies by shifting the analytical gaze from open source software cultures and ‘cultural analytics’ to the vapour-ware meets hard edge of consultancy culture and global infrastructures?7

To take the first of these two examples, the program of cultural analytics, headed by Lev Manovich and his Software Studies Initiative at the University of California – San Diego, summarises its project in ways that essentially transpose already existing techniques rather than invent new methods per se: ‘Today sciences, business, governments and other agencies rely on computer-based analysis and visualization of large data sets and data flows. They employ statistical data analysis, data mining, information visualization, scientific visualization, visual analytics, and simulation. We propose to begin systematically applying these techniques to contemporary cultural data’.8

By contrast, a study of software within the global logistics industries prompts the question of method with regard to how to research the relation between software and the management of labour, the role of logistics infrastructure and the reconfiguration of urban, rural and geopolitical spaces, and the production of new regimes of knowledge within an organisational paradigm. Software systems operative within global logistics industries generate protocols and standards that shape social, economic and cross-institutional relations within and beyond the global logistics industries. How such governing forces and material conditions are captured and made intelligible through the use of digitally modified data is, in part, the challenge of method.

One of the key reasons why a critical study of logistics is going to devise quite different computational and design methods than, say, cultural analytics, has to do with the difficulty of obtaining data sets due to commercial in confidence agreements along with the politically sensitive nature of some of this data. Statistics on labour productivity are especially protected across the institutional spectrum in the case of Australia’s ports, which have been marked by industrial dispute between the MUA (Maritime Union of Australia) and stevedoring companies over the past year (to say nothing of the long history of dispute). In the formal, high-end sectors of the logistics industries, it is particularly difficult to research the actual software used to oversee supply chains and measure labour performativity in real-time. One reason for this has to do with prohibitively expensive proprietary licenses that enclose the computational operations of logistical firms coupled with the highly guarded ways in which companies and authorities regulate access to this software and the data it generates. This means other processes and techniques of computational research are required in order to model logistical worlds, foregrounding the labour dimension to what Anna Tsing terms ‘supply-chain capitalism’.9

Based on publicly available data sets published in Waterline reports from the Australian Government’s Department of Infrastructure and Transport, the pilot study we conducted on logistics operations at Port Botany in Sydney aimed to digitally visualise the relations between container loading / unloading times, truck turn-around times and the pressures that come to bear upon labour productivity and efficiency.10 These government reports provide statistics on a set of parameters designed to measure wharf-side productivity (loading and unloading of containers) and land-side performance (truck turn-around times upon entering and exiting the port). The report’s statistics are compiled from data supplied by port authorities (Sydney Ports) and stevedoring companies (DP World, Patricks) operating around the country.

While the reports provide a range of productivity indicators, they do not provide data on labour performance even though they indicate that ‘elapsed labour time’ was one of the measures used to calculate the vessel working rate (or number of containers handled per hour). Sydney Ports and the Department of Infrastructure have been unable to provide us with figures on labour performance and we are looking into other possible organisations that might open these data sets for our analysis. Container loading and unloading times, and indeed truck turn-around times, can therefore be read as a substitute for labour productivity.

To be clear, the digital visualisations we have developed in collaboration with colleagues in computer science and design do not profess to represent in any veridical manner the conditions and experiences of labour. Rather, they indicate a diagram of relations special to logistical operations at Port Botany and, more generally, to logistical worlds. Simple as it may seem, to chart a ten year period of truck turn-around times and loading and unloading times at Port Botany begins to make visible some of the forces around labour productivity. Moreover, it begins to suggest that logistics is substantially removed from the all pervasive smooth world fantasy upheld by industry, government and the IT sector in which complex operations move across a seamless continuum of control and order. Logistical operations are better understood as event processes underscored by conflict, dispute, glitches and contingency.

Here, we can think about the waterfront disputes heating up in Australia and New Zealand, where labour flexibility and demands for increasing productivity are key issues in concert with managerial drives for enhanced technologies of automation. Another example that comes to mind would be how Occupy Oakland concentrated on port blockades in an attempt to disrupt global supply chains of capital accumulation. Interesting, this tactic ran foul of local unions and at least some of their members, who claimed the occupation resulted in workers and their families suffering economic hardship due to loss of income. We could also see this as an interesting contest over the right to intervene by different organisational forms. Back to the national setting: the 1988 waterfront dispute was the iconic strike of the Howard era and took a defining toll across many other areas of labour in Australia, shaping the form of the current resource driven economy (fly-in workers, off-shoring of labour within both the mining industry and more recently across a range of service industries on the Eastern seaboard). The remarkable thing about logistics is its capacity to incorporate these sort of disruptions within ever expanding parameters through the rubric of ‘fault tolerance’.

Digital methods can address political issues and the routines and institutions that sit between people and states, labour and capital, borders and subjectivity. The digital visualisations we have produced point to the undulations and irregularities of seemingly mechanical functions that can be better understood when situated in broader economic and political contexts that encompass local, national, regional and global scales. At the level of method, these visualisations feed back into a research process and constellation of practices, prompting a revision of research questions and pointing to institutional settings and relevant experts for follow up engagements that may well take the form of more traditional humanities research methods such as interviews and site visits.

The visualisations also signal that data aesthetics has a central role to play in devising suitable methods for research projects that cut across the otherwise smooth relation assumed between labour, software, infrastructure and economic growth. At stake, I would suggest, is not only the invention of novel methods shaped by the social-technical dynamics of digital media, but the constitution of subjectivity itself. Since software and technology are transforming how we do work, there is an opportunity here to alter the parameters and thus topological horizons of machine intelligence and its increasing governance of labour and life.

* Paper presented in panel on Digital Culture and Society: Questions of Method at Digital Humanities Australasia 2012: Building, Mapping, Connecting, The inaugural conference of the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities, Australian National University, Canberra, 28-30 March 2012, Co-panelists: Tony Bennett, Zoe Sofoulis, Bob Hodge (Chair).

Thanks to Brett Neilson for comments.

  1. See Lev Manovich, ‘Trending: The Promises and the Challenges of Big Social Data’, 2011,
  2. Data, Data Everywhere (interview with Kenneth Cukier)’, The Economist, 25 February 2010.
  3. Alan Liu, ‘The State of the Digital Humanities: A Report and a Critique’, Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 11.1-2 (2012): 11.
  4. See Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor, Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming.
  5. See Anja Kanngieser, ‘Tracking and Tracing Bodies: New Technologies of Governance and the Logistics Industries’, Policies and Practices, Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (CRG), 44 (January 2012).
  6. See, respectively, Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, 2008. Available at: Software Studies Initiative,, Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004, Matthew Fuller, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005; Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011; Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications and Implications, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
  7. See Lev Manovich, ‘Cultural Analytics: Visualizing Cultural Patterns in the Era of “More Media”’, 2011, and Keller Easterling, Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.
  8. Manovich, ibid.
  9. Anna Tsing, ‘Supply Chains and the Human Condition’, Rethinking Marxism 21.2 (2009): 148-176.
  10. The digital visualisations we have produced can be found at Visual analytics programming by Vinh Nguyen, design by Kernow Craig and background research by Katie Hepworth.

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